While pleased with the recent federal indictments in connection with threatening property attacks at three pro-life pregnancy centers in Florida, some pro-life leaders are questioning the federal government’s fairness and sense of urgency.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictments against two Florida residents last week. A grand jury in central Florida issued them Jan. 18 — eight months and 15 days since the first pro-abortion attack on a pro-life site occurred May 3, 2022, and two months and four days since the Federal Bureau of Investigation first issued a wanted poster and reward for an attack on a crisis-pregnancy center.
The Florida indictments are widely believed to be the first of abortion supporters attacking pro-life pregnancy centers under the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994. (A public-records request on that point is pending.)
“I think DOJ is just really overwhelmed by the pressure, quite frankly. And for good reason. They have been very, very slow in their efforts to address what they call justice,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a pro-life former state attorney general in Virginia and a high-ranking Homeland Security official in the Trump administration, in a telephone interview with the Register.
“It shouldn’t take pressure. But they’re succumbing to the pressure, for sure,” he said. “The threats are scary and ongoing. Surely those should have been priorities, and they really had to be beaten around the ears in order for them to become priorities, unfortunately. I guess better late than never.”
A Justice Department representative could not be reached for comment.
FACE Act, Pregnancy Centers and Churches
The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act — or FACE Act, as it is commonly known — was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in May 1994 primarily to protect abortion businesses from pro-life physical blockades.
But it only mentions the word “abortions” once; it specifically bans property damage or destruction against any facility that “provides reproductive health services.” It also makes it a federal offense to intentionally damage or destroy “the property of a place of religious worship.”
That language therefore appears to include both pregnancy centers and churches.
Cuccinelli, a lawyer and former state attorney general, said he expects the Florida indictments to hold up under legal challenge unless a federal appeals court decides the law is void for vagueness, a possibility he called “very unlikely.”
Still, pro-life leaders discern a disparity in how federal prosecutors are handling property attacks in abortion-related cases.
Since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice has issued press releases announcing four indictments of groups of pro-lifers charged with violating the FACE Act (against one person in Ohio, 11 people in Tennessee, 10 people in the District of Columbia, one in Pennsylvania) and a civil lawsuit against a pro-lifer in New Jersey.
In the Pennsylvania case, a federal jury acquitted pro-life activist Mark Houck this past Monday, four days after the judge reportedly asked prosecutors whether the federal FACE Act seemed “stretched a little thin here.” (Houck had been accused of shoving an abortion-facility escort twice, but said he did so not to impede access to the facility but because the escort was harassing his 12-year-old son.)
The Justice Department also announced a non-FACE Act federal prosecution for an attack on a Planned Parenthood abortion business in Illinois in January 2023.
Yet since early May 2022, when a draft version of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade leaked, several dozen pro-life pregnancy centers and churches have sustained property-damage attacks from abortion supporters. Most have consisted of graffiti and broken glass, but some have included arson. Many of the spray-painted messages have contained threats.
CNA has tracked and mapped more than 100 incidents of pro-abortion vandalism since the Dobbs leak, including at least 56 at pregnancy centers and 33 at churches of various denominations.
The arrests in Florida last week are the first since the attacks began.
A high-ranking political appointee in the Justice Department has referred to the FACE Act several times during the past several months and always in the context of helping maintain access to abortion.
Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general and the No. 3 official in the Justice Department, during a speech in December 2022, called the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade “a devastating blow to women throughout the country” and pledged that the Justice Department would use the FACE Act “to ensure continued lawful access to reproductive services,” but made no reference to the attacks on crisis-pregnancy centers.
Gupta leads the Justice Department’s Reproductive Rights Task Force, formed in July 2022 to try to protect access to abortion now that the federal Supreme Court has ruled that abortion isn’t a right under the federal Constitution.
Pro-Life Leaders Not Satisfied
The Register contacted several pro-life officials associated with organizations that have sustained property damage in pro-abortion attacks, asking for their reactions to the arrests in Florida.
Thomas Glessner, president of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, which advises what it calls “life-affirming pregnancy centers,” described the arrests in Florida as “a start,” but added: “There is a lot of work to be done to ensure justice.”
Asked by email if he is frustrated by the pace of the investigations, he responded: “Very much so. The government has failed to protect its citizens.”
Among the pregnancy centers his organization counsels is Life Choices in Longmont, Colorado, which sustained an arson attack in June 2022. Asked by email how confident he is that the case will be solved, Glessner responded, “At the rate that indictments are coming, not very. I’m holding out hope that the perpetrators are caught immediately and brought to justice. These pregnancy centers are doing so much good, helping women, and providing them with material and emotional support. Targeting these centers is so beyond any kind of logic.”
Lois Anderson, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, which sustained an overnight firebomb attack in May 2022, said she’s glad to see law enforcement taking such attacks seriously, but she expressed frustration with how federal investigators have handled her organization’s case.
“We understand that the process of justice takes time at every step. What’s been frustrating is the lack of communication or assurance we’ve received regarding the investigations,” Anderson told the Register by email. “Our local law enforcement was highly transparent with us, but communication ceased for months at a time after our local police had to pass the investigation to the FBI.”
Asked how confident she is that federal authorities are trying to solve the case, Anderson responded, “We strive to interpret others’ words and actions favorably as much as possible. Right now, their actions show us that the FBI is earnestly seeking justice. We hope that they’ll be as transparent and communicative with us as possible.”
Oregon Right to Life is an affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee, which is taking a cautious but hopeful approach.
“We did initially see that there was not an open response, or at least one that was made public from the FBI. That has now changed. I think for us the biggest thing is that pregnancy centers be treated equally under the law. Women are being seen there, and the people that work there need to be protected,” said Laura Echevarria, communications director and press secretary of the National Right to Life Committee, in a telephone interview.
Prosecutions in these cases are essential, she said.
“As we all know, the law teaches,” Echevarria said. “And if someone is committing vandalism and destroying property, and thinks they can get away with it, there will be more vandalism. So it’s good to see that action has been taken and charges have been filed.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, contacted by the Register about criticism of its investigations, responded with a written statement.
“The FBI is continuing to investigate a series of attacks and threats targeting pregnancy resource centers, faith-based organizations, and reproductive health clinics across the country, as well as to judicial buildings, including the U.S. Supreme Court,” it said. “The incidents are being investigated as potential acts of domestic violent extremism, FACE Act violations, or violent crime matters, depending on the facts of each case.”
“The FBI takes all violence and threats of violence very seriously and we are working closely with our law enforcement partners at the national, state, and local levels to investigate these incidents,” it continued. “We would like to remind members of the public that if they observe anything suspicious or have information about potential threats to report it to law enforcement immediately, call their local FBI field office, or submit a tip to tips.fbi.gov.”
On Nov. 17, the director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, addressed the topic under questioning from U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., during a public hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“It appears that DOJ have become politicized with regard to pro-life things,” Scott said, reading from a piece of paper. “There’s a recent rise in high-profile FBI investigations of pro-life Americans, which raises the concern that the FBI is weaponizing federal law enforcement and has become a partisan tool.” He noted that there have been “numerous fire bombings, violent attacks, acts of vandalism against churches, pro-life organizations, and crisis-pregnancy centers.”
Wray said that since the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade last year, about 70% of the abortion-related threat cases FBI agents have investigated have involved pro-life victims. He said about 20 field offices of the FBI are involved.
“I don’t care what side of the issue you are. You don’t get to engage in violence. And we are equal opportunity when it comes to that,” Wray said.
Scott said that the FBI is allowing the perception that it is one-sided on this issue.
“If you read the press, you would think that you guys are only going after pro-life groups and not going after groups that attack pro-life [centers],” Scott said. “I’m pro-law-enforcement, as you know, but I can’t defend you with no information.”
Wray said misleading news stories about the FBI bother him and stem from the bureau’s “circumspection about our work.”
“Sometimes it can be very frustrating to agents on the ground when they see things being misreported about their work. But we have all been taught that we have to bite our lips and let the facts come out in the right way, through court proceedings,” Wray said. “And sometimes that can be very frustrating, to us, and, it sounds like, to you, too.”